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Lessons from Preschool

Blog Headers 2023-24 (10)

Editor’s Note: Lay missioner Joleen Johnson recounts the lessons that she has learned from the preschool children at her ministry site. The pictures of children’s faces have been blurred for safety and confidentiality purposes.

I recently changed my school ministry site to accompany the preschoolers at one of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany’s schools. I predominately work with the three-year-olds. This blog hopes to describe a few of the things that I’ve learned at preschool in the short time that I’ve been attending.

One of my favorite things to do when I am not changing a diaper, or washing a kid’s hands (or washing my own hands after cleaning up another snot rocket that a sneeze launched all over the kid’s nose and shirt, and spritzed their surrounding vicinity), or taking a kid down off of the bathroom sink that they have climbed up on for the seventh time today, is to simply observe the nature of life for a three year old. They are fascinating to watch; how they interact with each other and react to everything teaches me a lot about the world, God and His creativity, and humanity in its raw forms. These preschoolers have very few filters and they are still developing the capacity to have control of themselves. They usually go with their every instinct, body or mind. This can be a good thing, and something that I often admire because nothing holds them back or restricts them. 

One day when I sat down in a chair to watch the little cherubs playing with ponies and unicorns, a child climbed up on my lap and put her head on my shoulder. I didn’t think anything of it until I had to get up less than a minute later to go take one of our little climbers down from the bathroom sink again. So as I was about to stand up, I realized that the child on my shoulder had fallen fast asleep! I couldn’t believe she was able to zonk out in less than 60 seconds, and I wasn’t even aware! I was so impressed! Even when I stood up she didn’t flinch or wake up. 

Most of those kids “hit the wall” of tiredness, they reach their capacity, and so they sleep. Unlike me, (and some other adults) the little ones don’t prevent themselves from the sleep that they need by finishing “one last thing before they go to bed”, or taking “10 more minutes playing on their phone” before closing their eyes. If they are done, they pass out and sleep wherever they are. I’ve seen kids fall asleep sitting up (even with their hand still in their snacks), in all kinds of positions, on their backs or stomachs, body alignment contorted, or legs sprawled in every direction. (Sometimes I think to myself, “how can that possibly be comfortable!?”) They continue to sleep with loud music and loud children running all around them, and yet while they are asleep, they show the most peaceful demeanor of the whole day. I absolutely admire how preschoolers have the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. When they get to that point, it’s game over–nap time! Just raw human needs being met.

Lesson: Take a nap when tired, don’t delay.

Watching how these kids interact with each other teaches me about their raw (largely uninfluenced) human instincts toward justice, forgiveness, and community, and against racism. Most of the time when a three year old comes to me in tears it’s because another child took their toy or because someone hurt them (probably because of a toy conflict too). They have instincts toward justice, and they want the right thing to be done, the correct action to be taken, so they speak out against wrongs even at age three. Some kids will come tell me someone took another kid’s toy, not even their own. They want justice and advocate for it, even though not all of them can speak in sentences yet. Yet, even after the tears, and even if the situation is not rectified, the children do not tend to hold grudges, they play with the kid who wronged them a few minutes later. I think they have an instinct and generous capacity to forgive one another. I also see them comforting each other when one is upset or crying, or when they fall down or fall off a tricycle. I admire that.

Everybody plays with everybody in preschool. Boys and girls, children of all different skin colors and heritages–any differences that we point out and might dwell on as adults, or create prejudices upon, these three-year-olds have no awarenessof. One little girl started calling me “mom” one day and cried and screamed when I went out the door to go home for the day. I, of course, melted, and turned right back around to scoop her up and hold her for a while before leaving for the second time. When I got home, I told some of the Sisters this story and one Sister laughed sweetly and said, “Kids really don’t see color, and they don’t have prejudices. They don’t treat each other any differently because of their color or because of anything. Discrimination really is taught, it’s not natural.” Then she laughed a little harder as she looked at me and said, “There’s no way you could be her mom with your white skin and blonde hair! No, they don’t see color at all!” 

Lesson: Discrimination is not natural; it is taught. Learn to forgive quickly.

Finally, one of the many things that these little ones have taught me about God pertains to Guardian Angels. As these three year olds are still largely developing control of everything, physical and mental, I am continually amazed by how these kids don’t collide into each other more often. Each kid is just running wherever they want during play time, wherever their instincts take them, and it seems to me often that there is no destination in mind. They seem to be running for the fun of running. However, as they are all running in the same space, with motor skills still developing, I am baffled by how they miraculously miss each other so often. There are many times each day when two or more children are running at full speed and their trajectories are headed right to crash into each other. I close my eyes and embrace for impact from across the room as my heart beat picks up speed, but when I don’t hear any crying, I open my eyes just to see that they have missed each other again and are continuing on their merry way, no one hurt. I would estimate about 5% of the time they actually collide, but 95% of the time, when I think they don’t have the reaction time or muscle control to stop before the collision, they somehow just miss each other at the last possible second. So I’m left in disbelief time and time again. I’ve come to the conclusion that this doesn’t make sense rationally, so there must be numerous Jamaican Guardian Angels working overtime for these little ones, and preventing injury constantly. Thus, God is tenderly watching out for them each moment. 

Lesson: Remember the hard work of the Guardian Angels in each moment. 

What a blessing it is to accompany the youngest children at this school, to watch them, to be with them, and to hear their thoughts and their understanding of the world. I am not the teacher of this preschool classroom, but I am certainly learning a lot. 

Question for Reflection: What are some lessons that young children have taught you?

Joleen discovered her passion for overseas service during her first mission trip in 2012 to Guatemala. Since then she has served in Haiti and studied abroad in India, teaching English in an elementary school, after which she began to feel the call to longer term overseas service. Joleen is excited to see what God will teach her through FMS, and looks forward to living out His call for her. She is inspired by FMS’s humble and relational approach to ministry.